Now just in case you were not aware of the potential impact of negative thoughts and feelings on health and wellbeing, here is a brief summary about the way the things that start in our mind, and emanate from the brain, can influence the rest of the body, hence the term “mind body connection”.
Probably the most significant evidence available relates to the impact of negative emotion on health. Negative feelings ranging from stress, depression and even artificially induced feelings in laboratory studies[i] have frequently been shown to have negative effects on the body’s resistance to disease. For example, researchers studied a group of girls who received their first rubella vaccination and then had their response to the vaccine measured. Those girls with more negative feelings and lower self-esteem had a lower response to the rubella vaccine at 10 weeks after the vaccination compared to those girls with less negative thoughts indicating that their psychological state had a negative influence on their immune system’s ability to respond to the vaccination.
Depression, and even current depressive feelings, or just a history of depression all have been associated with increased risk of heart disease. Amongst patients admitted to psychiatric hospitals with depression it has been noted that heart disease-related death is more common than those not admitted to psychiatric hospital.
The famous, at least in medical circles, Women’s Health Initiative Study, which followed a multi-ethnic sample of nearly 94,000 women aged 5079 years for approximately several years, found that women with depressive feelings had a 50% higher risk of death, even after controlling for education, income, and traditional heart disease risk factors[ii].
Hopelessness is one symptom of depression that appears to have particularly adverse effects on health. One study reported that a single question about hopelessness predicted a nearly doubling of risk of fatal and nonfatal heart disease.
For many years it was believed that the Type A personality, characterized as competitive, impatient and hurrying was associated with higher heart disease risk. However more sophisticated research has now shown that rather than this being due to a personality style, it was actually due to one factor alone- “hostility”. In fact people with more hostile behaviours are not only at greater risk of heart attacks but are in fact likely to live for shorter durations and have poorer health in general. The mechanism by which personality traits such as hostility influence health has yet to be elucidated, but a number of clues have emerged indicating that hostility might, on the one hand be associated with risky behaviours such as smoking, overeating, alcohol consumption and high cholesterol[iii]. However, on the other hand, there appears to be some evidence for hostility having a direct biological effect on things like the activity of the vagus nerve, which serves, amongst many other things, to exert a slowing effect on the heart when it is stressed.[iv] Coincidentally, the vagus nerve is, because of its unique anatomy, uniquely influenced by the brain. Men with high hostility scores on psychological testing also had increased platelet stickiness[v] which is an important factor in the formation of clots in the coronary arteries during a heart attack. Some research suggests that hostility is associated with lower levels of serotonin in the brain. For instance, Fluoxetine, a widely used antidepressant, has been shown to reduce aggressive behaviour in both humans and animals presumably because it increases serotonin in certain areas of the brain[vi]. Men who had no history of depression who were put on a low tryptophan (a building block of serotonin) diet displayed increased negative feelings, especially anger and depression, in direct relationship to the reduction in blood levels of tryptophan and serotonin[vii]. So it is clear that the damaging impact of negative thoughts and feelings, what we might call “mis-wiring” of the brain can do.
The power and the limitations of positive thinking?
The principle of plasticity underlies the method of cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, which seeks to stop entrenched negative thinking patterns and create and foster positive ones. CBT is a remarkably effective, common sense idea that is now widely recommended as first line therapy for mild to mod depression.
As recognition of the usefulness of CBT grew so did the idea that encouraging positive thinking in general might also be beneficial. This is how the positive thinking movement began. It has mushroomed over the last two decades and has spawned a plethora of books, courses, lectures and gurus. Yet when the hard science is taken to positive thinking strategies very little seems to happen at a measurable level. In fact there is now a growing realization that while it is scientifically verifiable that that negative thoughts and feelings are bad for you, forcing oneself to have positive thoughts and feelings doesn’t seem to have the opposite effect.
In fact there are many health professionals who complain that they are often called upon to deal with the fallout of the positive thinking fad. What many of these professionals observe is that forcing oneself to “think positive” will not reliably eliminate negative feelings. A common scenario described by counselors often involves a patients who finds that despite their best efforts to make themselves think positively, they are unable to do so, or discover that the course of their physical illness, or whatever problem they have set out to deal with using positive thoughts, has not changed Rather than realizing the limitations of enforced positive thinking the patient instead blames him or herself, which only magnifies the mental dimension of the problem. The frustration of failure sets up even more negative thought and feeling cycles.
In other situations, people can misuse the concept of positive thinking to avoid facing unpleasant realities that are nevertheless essential to be faced and dealt with. Their positive thinking becomes a way of avoiding reality and thus the whole “think positive” paradigm degenerates into a destructive process of either self blame or denial. This is not to say that there is not a role for positive thinking, it is however important to recognize the significant limitations of trying to change our thinking using thinking!
From a neuroplasticity perspective the negative thinking circuits that we have set up in our brain will not necessarily fade by establishing further positive thought circuits because it’s the negative circuits that must be deactivated.Yet deeply ingrained negative thought, emotion or behavior patterns are often so persistent that they are very difficult to shut off. As result they constantly reinforce the dysfunctional wiring that supports them. It’s the same reason why CBT can be remarkably effective in people with mild to moderate disorders but seems to be less effective when dealing with more severe conditions.
This is where the potential of mental silence becomes evident. When our mind becomes overwhelmed with the burden of many different but more or less dysfunctional thinking patterns, quite possibly the best solution is a period of mental silence literally as a circuit breaker. Meditation can provide the kind of down time necessary for those entrenched neural circuits that have been built up around, and hence perpetuating, each set of negative thoughts, to start dissassembling. Mental silence is “time out” for the brain that might well provide the ideal environment for the positive effects of plasticity to occur. So, when we find that positive thinking is not working it may be best to try a dose of non-thinking.
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[v] Markovitz JH. Hostility is associated with increased platelet activation in coronary heart disease. [Journal Article] Psychosomatic Medicine. 60(5):586-91, 1998 Sep-Oct.
[vi] Fuller RW. Fluoxetine effects on serotonin function and aggressive behavior. [Journal Article] Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 794:90-7, 1996 Sep 20
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